Amália (II)

16 Apr

Amália’s music can be read alongside not only her biography but also the history of Portugal. During the period of the Estado Novo (1933-1974) both urban fado and rural folk music were appropriated by António Salazar’s programme of nationalism, the former being strictly policed via the censorship of lyrics and the issuing of compulsory performance permits, the latter through the cultivation of ranchos folclóricos and the setting up of rural folklore competitions. Subsequently fado came to be associated by many people with the authoritarian regime. For Joaquim Pais de Brito, however, Amália was able to elide such an association:

During the Estado Novo fado survived in a rather ambiguous position; as it became stationed – through successive laws prohibiting it from being sung in public houses – within the casas típicas which, through their nature, had the bourgeoisie and tourists as their public, fado lived alongside the regime, which, while not adopting or promoting fado, did not distance itself from it either. This did not matter overly since the problem was resolved by Amália. The quality of Amália’s voice and the moment in which it appeared allowed, to a certain extent, the definitive stylisation of fado, exporting it and bringing to bear upon it major ‘erudite’ poets, all of them now writing for a single voice.

(Joaquim Pais do Brito, ‘Tudo Isto é Fado (II)’, Elo Associativo No. 19 (June 2001), Colectividades website, http://www.colectividades.org/elo/019/p25.html – link now dead.)

Leonor Lains makes a related point when she writes of Amália’s broad appeal: ‘She crossed all barriers and cultural prejudices. Amália had the gift of reconciling the urban with the rural, the cultured with the popular, through her unique quality of voice, full of sensual and musical emotion.’ Both de Brito’s and Lains’s points are relevant to another track from Busto, ‘Povo Que Lavas no Rio’ [You People Who Wash in the River]. The lyric, written by the poet Pedro Homem de Melo, works as both an evocation of rural values by a narrator who we assume to be a city dweller, or at least a person who has accepted a subject position that allows them to address the rural population with the familiar ‘tu’. The first verse begins with the lines ‘You people who wash in the river / Who cut with your axe / The planks of my coffin / There should be someone to defend you’. Subsequent verses speak of living among the people, of drinking from a cork cup and of the ‘scents of heather and mud’. Though there is an appeal to familiarity through a sense of belonging in the second and third verses, the distance maintained by the relationship described in the first is that which sets the underlying tone. Here the poet Homem de Melo and the singer Rodrigues take on the responsibility of hymning the people while also observing them at a geographical and temporal distance. The combination of romanticism and identification is one that aims for quite distinct audiences. Whether it is possible to find in Amália’s performance of the song the voice that de Brito tells us can resolve the problem of fado’s relationship to the Estado Novo is harder to gauge.

Cover of Folclore 3Another way in which Amália was able to bridge the divide between urban and rural populations was her tendency to mix traditional folk songs of Portugal and the Lusophone world into her repertory of fados. In 1967 Valentim de Carvalho released three EPs of folk songs: ‘Amália Canta Portugal’, ‘Malhão de Cinfães’ and ‘Folclore 3’. These were followed in 1971 by an LP, Amália Canta Portugal 2. The songs associated with this aspect of Amália’s work, such as ‘Caracóis’ or ‘Malhão de São Simão’, often used fado instrumentation but the vocal tended to be rather different to that generally found in fado singing – a difference that would no doubt be even more noticeable had Amália not been a fado singer by vocation.Cover of Caracois What Timothy Mitchell says of flamenco singing in relation to Spanish folk singing is comparable to the different use of emotional expression in fado and Portuguese folk singing: ‘the aesthetically differentiated moan of cante jondo can give the truth of the song style independent of the song lyrics, which do not even need to be intelligible; herein lies a crucial difference between deep song and Spanish folk song.’  It is worth remembering that lyrics are a crucial aspect of fado though it is also true, as in Mitchell’s point, that emotional melisma does much of the expressive work. In addition there are numerous examples of word fetishization in fado that shift the focus away from where it would be in a more narrative style ballad.  Homem de Melo’s poeticized account of life in the countryside is quite removed from the narrative ballad style, stressing as it does the cork cup, the heather and the mud over any conventional storyline.It is interesting to speculate on the characteristic of the solo voice in fado canção, articulating as it often does a single highly poeticized viewpoint, and to ask what it says about the relationship between the individual and the collective.

Certainly this type of song was considered by many fado aficionados to have little to do with the earlier fado, now coming to be known as fado castiço. Joaquim Pais de Brito stresses the links between fado’s origins and ideas of collectivity when he says of the fado world of the late nineteenth century, ‘it was an area where the excluded lived together: people from the street, immigrants, people without a past, people of mixed race, others who lived from the patronage of a decadent nobility.’  Music, and the venues in which it was created, brought people together in a way that, if less ritualized than in the villages, was nonetheless crucial in maintaining the social bond. For many, then, it was the subsequent journey fado took from the taverns to the theatre reviews that was responsible for erecting the wall between performer and audience, the fencing-off that, as in the museum and on the record, destroyed the possibility of a collectivized musical practice. Tearto Republica advertisementIt is at this same point that fado took on the responsibility of being the professional, ‘official’ Portuguese music of loss (or, as several fadologists would seem to prefer, the music of Portuguese loss, which is saying a rather different thing). Salazar’s policies undoubtedly exacerbated this process of fencing-off but did not create it. As with the emergence of rock ’n’ roll in the United States, there are a number of issues to consider when determining why fado canção emerged when it did and why Amália Rodrigues became its paradigmatic performer, ranging from changes in the law (here, the Novo Estado policies were crucially determinant but previously extant copyright laws should not be forgotten, affecting as they do the role of the artist in the period of mass mediation); migration to the cities; changes in recording and media technology; shifts in the high/low divide in the arts.

Whatever the purists thought, and despite (or because of?) the emphasis on the individual, Amália’s music remained popular throughout the 1960s. For three years running, from 1967 to 1969, she received the MIDEM award for the artist selling the most records in their country, a feat only equalled by the Beatles. The emerging protest song movement, the canto de intervenção, can be seen as a reaction to this dominance of the popular musical scene as much as to a perceived ideological impurity in fado. Many of the songwriters of canto de intervenção were also, in a way, more individualistic than the fado performers they sought to challenge. As with contemporaneous folk music movements in other countries there was, despite a strong desire to identify with the common man and woman, a tendency towards solo singer-songwriters keen to put their message across their way. The singer-songwriter, like the preacher, requires a charismatic individuality in order to be effective; at the same time they require a compliant congregation willing and able to take their message up and echo it with the power of choral unison. It was in his ability to do so that José Afonso took on the mantle of the musician of the revolutionary era in Portugal.

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